Very recently, the ninth anniversary of the tragic Tazreen Fashion fire incident was observed with solemn remembrance of those who perished in the incident.
It may be mentioned here that on 24 November, 2012, the deadliest factory fire in Bangladesh’s history broke out at Tazreen Fashions Limited, a garments factory in Ashulia, on the outskirts of capital city Dhaka, killing as many as 114 people and leaving over 200 injured.
The blaze was believed to have been caused by a short circuit even as reports suggest that workers were trapped inside the building, as all exit routes to the outside were locked even if there was only one escape route and that through the windows on the upper floors of the nine-storey building. With regular exit routes shut and no way to make it out of the burning building, many workers were killed by fire and smoke and those who leaped from the windows of the third and fourth floors to save their lives, sustained severe injuries that have reportedly left many in constant pain.
For the uninitiated, this is neither the first nor the last accident to have happened in Bangladesh’s industries, especially in the readymade garment sector.
According to the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence, 2020 witnessed 383 industrial fires; 273 of them occurred at apparel factories even as between 2012 and 2019, there were reportedly more than 150 fires and other safety incidents connected to Bangladesh’s apparel industry, which reportedly killed more than 1,300 people while leaving 3,800-plus people injured, according to the Solidarity Center while according to the International Labour Organisation, at least 2,000 workers and other staff died in at least 26 blazes in factories over the past two decades.
As per reports, in 2010, fire reportedly killed 21 workers at Garib and Garib Garments and 26 at Ha-Meem Group’s sportswear factory while in July 2019, six employees of a spinning mill in Gazipur were killed in a factory fire and 13 in a boiler explosion in 2017 in the same area.
In 2016, a fire triggered by a boiler explosion at Tampaco Foils Ltd., in Tongi reportedly killed at least 25 people even as in the same year a fire reportedly broke out in a sweater factory in Gazipur, killing at least four workers.
In next January after the tragic Tazreen incident, eight workers reportedly perished in a fire at Smart Export Garments while in May that year, eight more workers reportedly died as a fire swept through another garment factory in capital city Dhaka.
Meanwhile, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a social think-tank, revealed in a study that the number of injured workers in factory related accidents increased by almost 24 per cent in 2020 compared to that of in 2019.
CPD Research Director Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem disclosed the findings at a seminar while adding the issue of workplace safety in the RMG sector has come to public attention in recent times with the rise in industrial accidents in garment and allied factories. He said the rising number of accidents raises question about the effectiveness of the institutional process followed for maintaining industrial safety in the post-Accord-Alliance period.
He also claimed that the number of incidences increased by 100 per cent in FY2020 compared to that in FY2019 followed by a decline of 20 per cent in FY2021 (up to April, 2021).
“Accidents took place for different reasons such as fire, short circuit, structural collapse, boiler explosion and so on”, he said adding the incidences of fire and electrical (short-circuit) were the main reasons (35 per cent of total incidences) even as speakers from garment workers’ leaders blamed the lack of the Government’s proper monitoring for growing incidents of fire and other accidents for which the workers are being the main victims.
“We’ve been hearing the same statement from the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment (DIFE) in last eight years since the Rana Plaza Disaster in 2013 that it has no adequate manpower to monitor industries,” reportedly claimed labour leader China Rahman.
Keeping aside fire incidents, there’s also the case of Rana Plaza building collapse!
It was in 2013 that the eight-storey Rana Plaza came crashing down in the Savar Upazila of Dhaka District. Even as the search for the dead ended on 13 May, 2013, the death toll was put at around 1,134 while approximately 2,500 injured people were rescued from the building alive.
However, it was in the aftermath of this incident that a massive transformation of the Bangladesh garment industry took place. After the Accord and Alliance was formed, major reform was carried out in the apparel sector, carrying out remediation in massive scales even if simultaneously more and more entrepreneurs came up with green manufacturing units.
The result – Bangladesh is today home to highest number of green factories in the world.
However, the question still remains about those who lost their lives or have been rendered physically incapable in these accidents…Has justice been delivered to them?
If reports are to believed even if stakeholders did try to help the workers to some extent, especially in case of Tazreen, legally things are far from being sorted out even if in the aftermath of the Tazreen incident, an agreement to make payments specifically to cover loss of income and medical treatment was signed by IndustriALL Global Union, the Clean Clothes Campaign, C&A and the C&A Foundation just prior to the second anniversary of the fire in 2014 and, this agreement led to the creation of the Tazreen Claims Administration Trust in September 2015 to oversee the claims process, co-operate with organisations representing the families and collect funding to make the payments even as the Trust reportedly raised money to cover the payments primarily through contributions from brands and retailers whose products were produced at the Tazreen factory.
However, as far as legal remedy is concerned or for that matter, rehabilitation of the injured physically disabled are concerned, much reportedly need to be done yet even as compensations still remain a major issue!
It may be mentioned here that on the 8th anniversary of the Tazreen Incident last year, children joined sit-in programme and sent open letters to the Prime Minister, requesting her to arrange compensation for their parents who were injured in the in Tazreen Fashion fire eight years ago.
The children of the injured workers carried placards and stood in front of the National Press Club even as in her open letter, Sabina Yasmin, daughter of injured worker Zarina Akter, said, “We have been separated from our parents for almost two months now. We spend each day in panic. Our injured parents are standing in front of the Press Club in the sun and rain. They are sick. Instead of being treated in hospitals, they are spending days on the streets. We plead to the Prime minister to accept the list of three-point demands, including early compensation, and return our family to us. We cannot eat properly because we have had no income for ages. We are in crisis without our parents.”
Abdul Quader Nahid, son of garment worker Nasima Begum, who took part in the sit-in, reportedly wrote in his open letter, “My mother was injured in that terrible fire. She hasn’t been able to work since then. Though I study with my younger siblings, we’re unable to study properly due to lack of income. We can’t even eat properly.”
He went on to add, “We are upset without my mother, so please accept her demands and let her come back home. Please make arrangements so I can take my mother home.”
The main demands of the workers are three, which are to provide compensation to injured workers, including instituting an amendment to a section of the compensation law; provide dignified and practical rehabilitation to all injured workers, and provide long-term medical treatment to the injured.
The scenario was no different on the ninth anniversary of the incident this year as well when relatives, colleagues and leaders of various workers’ organisations gathered at the factory gates to pay tributes to the fallen workers, saying that after all this time, none of their demands have been met.
Reba Khatun, a mother of two, who managed to survive by jumping from the upper floor window and sustained serious injuries on her legs, waist, and head, told media she could not return to work even after receiving treatment for a long time.
“None of our demands, for rehabilitation of family members of victims and survivors, for compensation, for better treatment, and for capital punishment of the accused have been met,” reportedly claimed Reba Khatun, adding, “We only got some financial support and help with our medical bills, but this is nowhere near enough to run our families,” even as Organising Secretary of Bangladesh Trade Union Center Khairul Mamun Mintu, on his part, reportedly said, “No steps have been taken to rehabilitate the families of the slain and injured worker.”
Khairul Mamun Mintu also urged the Government to meet all their demands soon, while also demanding that the burnt building be renovated and used to rehabilitate workers.
Meanwhile, members of the victims’ families also expressed frustration over the fact that justice still remained a far cry with no significant progress in the trial of two cases filed for the fire incident even as President of Textile Garments Workers’ Federation (Ashulia),Yusuf Sheikh, maintained, “Last year, family members of those who sustained injuries protested in front of the National Press Club for almost four months demanding ideal compensation, relocation and arrangements for long-term treatment for the injured. And although countless promises were made by officials from Government and private organisations in the regard, none were kept.”
He also lamented the fact that although nine years had passed, the perpetrators responsible for the horrific accident still roamfree while demanding a quick verdict in the cases filed against those held responsible for the tragedy.
To mark the ninth anniversary of the tragic fire, worker leaders gathered all around Bangladesh to ensure that this kind of incident never reoccurs even as they demanded regular factory inspections to ensure safety, adequate compensation for the victims in line with International Labor Organization Convention 121, medical services for the injured and Tazreen Fashion management to be brought to justice for their negligence toward workers’ safety.
“The development we see around us is due to the hard work of our garment workers who bring in the foreign currency that drives our industries, development projects and our economy. We can never be negligent about their safety and security at work. Our garment industry will prosper only if its workers are free from fear of losing their lives at work,” opined Babul Aktar, General Secretary of Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) even as going by the reports, one would but maintain justice is still very much elusive for the ones who lost their lives or are rendered physically handicapped to lead a normal life ever again.